Socialist Worker

Is class decided by the ‘old school tie’?

Issue No. 2250

Governments of all kinds have promised in recent years to break down barriers to social mobility.

This was a key pledge of New Labour during its 13 years in government. And deputy prime minister Nick Clegg recently said that a child poverty and social mobility commission was to be set up.

Clegg claimed that it was the “overriding mission” to improve the life chances of low income families.

Despite all this, society has become less equal and mobile in the last three decades. The Tories’ cuts will inevitably make things much worse.

But social immobility cannot be reformed away. It is structured into the nature of capitalism.

Capitalism is deeply hierarchical. It is based on the division of society into classes. Karl Marx noted this crucial feature more than 150 years ago. The system’s fundamentals have not changed since then.

The ruling class stands at the top of society—principally the bosses who own the factories, offices and other workplaces. The working class stands at the bottom—people who have to sell their labour power to the employers to get by.

These are the two major classes in society—one because of its power and wealth, the other because its work keeps the system going.

The middle class lies in-between—doctors, headteachers, lower level managers and small businesspeople.

All this makes capitalism a profoundly unequal system.

For instance, the richest 1 percent of Britons own 21 percent of the country’s wealth, while the poorest half of the population own just 6 percent.

Some commentators claim that recent changes to the kind of jobs people do means that class is now an outdated concept in Britain.

They claim that the decline in manufacturing jobs and the increase in white collar jobs, such as in the civil service and IT, has meant that most people are now middle class.

They say that those in low paid jobs or unemployed are part of the underclass. Labour leader Ed Miliband echoes this when he talks about the “squeezed middle”. But this is a misunderstanding of the nature of the society we live in.

Class is not about how much you earn, your job or what you think you are. It is about a social relationship, and where you stand in relation to how things are produced.

Despite many changes to capitalism, class remains based on whether you own a workplace or have to go to work for a wage.

Most people in the white collar sector are working class, selling their labour power to the bosses.

Many of the jobs that were previously seen as middle class have changed. Attacks on conditions and increasing pressure on workers in the 1970s and 1980s meant that teachers, lecturers and clerical staff began to see themselves as working class.

The class that we are born into characterises every aspect of our lives—the food we eat, our healthcare, the school or university we attend (or don’t), the jobs we do.

It even defines how long we live—working class people die younger than middle or ruling class people.

Structure

While there are some examples of people moving from one class to the other, these are exceptions.

It is very difficult for individuals to break out of this class structure, which keeps the status quo in place.

A government report last year found that, “Economic advantage and disadvantage reinforce themselves across the life cycle, and onto the next generation.”

Real equality and social mobility are incompatible with capitalism. No government can achieve them under this system.

The bosses’ push to increase profits has driven the rise in inequality over the past 30 years. They have attacked and weakened unions so that they are able to force people to work longer and harder for less.

This needs to be reversed to challenge the inequalities that scar our lives. But we need to go further if we want to defeat poverty and injustice once and for all.

Marx pointed to the working class as the force that can bring about a different kind of world.

That is because the system brings workers together in vast workplaces. Here they have tremendous power—they keep capitalism running.

It is in the working class’s interest to end a system based on their exploitation and impoverishment, and to create a world based on human need.

This socialist society would finally get rid of the classes and inequality that are essential to this unjust world.


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Tue 3 May 2011, 18:14 BST
Issue No. 2250
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